News! I have some fun news. I actually thought long and hard about posting this on Silent London. My concern was: is this really something that Silent Londoners need? Then I thought, what the heck, it’s fun to share some good news when you have it, and actually you may be more interested than I think.
Drumroll … I have a new book coming out! Very soon. Last year I had the delicious job of editing 30-Second Cinema, a lushly illustrated guide to film history and world cinema from Quarto, an imprint of Ivy Press.
Here’s the official blurb:
Are you an art-movie buff or a blockbuster enthusiast? Can you reel off a list of New Wave masterpieces, or are you more interested in classic Westerns? Most of us love the movies in one form or another, but very few of us have the all-round knowledge we’d like. 30-Second Cinema offers an immersion course, served up in neat, entertaining shorts. These 50 topics deal with cinema’s beginnings, with its growth as an industry, with key stars and producers, with global movements—from German Expressionism to New Hollywood—and with the movies as a business. By the time you’ve worked your way through, you’ll be able to identify the work of George Melies, define auteur theory or mumblecore in a couple of pithy phrases, and you’ll have broadened your knowledge of global cinema to embrace not only Bollywood but Nollywood, too. All in the time it takes to watch a couple of trailers.
There are a handful of silent films that most cinephiles see first. Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis, Sunrise, The General and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari perhaps, give or take Nosferatu, a Hitchcock and a couple more Hollywood favourites. There is nothing dismaying about the establishment of these films as classics of the silent era, widely available on DVD and at festival screenings. However, this very select canon can offer a distorted picture of the period. At the very least, there is a risk that these isolated examples are heralded as rare triumphs from a primitive age.
This is where Lawrence Napper’s engaging guide to late silent film comes in. Silent Cinema: Before the Pictures Got Small offers a broader picture of film style and the film industry between the First World War and the coming of sound. The opening chapter begins with the audience, tracing the history of filmgoing in this period, using the depiction of cinemas in silent movies. Subsequent sections provide context for those film-club favourites, outlining the industry and aesthetics of the cinema in Germany, Russia and America.
In these chapters, Napper revisits and challenges some fondly held views. Particularly, he stresses that there is far more to the national silent cinemas of Germany and Russia than Expressionism or Soviet montage respectively. He follows a detailed discussion of Caligari with the suggestion that the reader looks at Ernst Lubitsch comedies such as The Oyster Princess and The Doll to discover similar stylisation in both performance and design but applied in the name of pleasure and humour rather than the evocation of psychological trauma.
Just a short note, to give you a little bit of news. The book I’ve been writing, well actually wrote last summer, has a release date! It’s a short book in the BFI Film Classics series, about one of the most beautiful and fascinating of all silent movies, GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), starring the unique Louise Brooks. #pandorasbook
Bad news for now – the book isn’t out until 21 November.
Good news for now – you can pre-order the book already, on Amazon, on the Palgrave site, or in a selection of other bookshops.
Good news to come – I’m talking to several people at venues up and down the UK, about screenings of the film to tie in with the launch. The deal is: I’ll come along, chat about the film, sell you a book and it will be midwinter magic all round. Details of those events to come, so watch this space …
Thanks for all your support. It’s also exactly a year today since I quit my full-time job and I have had a fabulous, busy 12 months of freelance film-related work. It’s enough to make a girl want to dance …
Nobody knows more about Louise Brooks than Thomas Gladysz. Having founded the Louise Brooks Society in 1995, he has spent more than two decades researching her life and work, curating memorabilia and writing about this most fascinating of silent era actresses. A few years back he published a sumptuous illustrated edition of the novel that Brooks’s second German film, Diary of a Lost Girl (G. W. Pabst, 1929) was based on, and he has contributed audio commentaries to American DVDs of that film, and her finest Hollywood movie, Beggars of Life (William Wellman, 1928).
Which brings us up to date with Gladysz’s latest publication – a short book about the Wellman film, packed with anecdotes and information. Beggars of Life: A Companion to the 1928 Film is a quick, satisfying read, illustrated with promotional material, posters and stills as well as press clippings. In these pages, Gladysz takes us through the making and the reception of the film and clears up a few mysteries too.
The film, which you may have been lucky enough to see accompanied by a live score from the fabulous Dodge Brothers, features Brooks as an orphan fugitive, dressed as a boy and riding the rails with a handsome tramp played by Richard Arlen and a gang of his peers, including the the menacing Oklahoma Red, played by Wallace Beery. It’s adapted from a famous book by “hobo author” Jim Tully, and although it was a little sanitised by Hollywood, it’s still a remarkably raw, realist film. Not least of its strengths is that Brooks here gives an excellent performance as a survivor of sexual abuse, as she would in her two Pabst films, drawing perhaps on her own experiences as a child.
When Taschen sent me a copy of its latest book, I was overwhelmed. And so was the courier who brought it to my desk at work. Blimey, it’s big. Open the box, and you’ll discover that this is a very beautiful volume too. The Charlie Chaplin Archives is a stunning new book, which pays tribute to south London’s favourite son across 560 gorgeous pages crammed with quotes, archive imagery, classic film stills and snippets of Chaplinalia. It takes the reader step-by-step through all of Charlie Chaplin’s feature films and many of his shorter works. Along the way, you’ll find out how Chaplin made his movies, and a little bit more about Hollywood’s greatest ever rags-to-riches tale. As the foreword by editor Paul Duncan explains, Chaplin was famously secretive about the creative process, so these glimpses behind the camera are fascinating – especially when we learn how much was reworked and invented in the studio, rather than at the script stage. This is an oral history too: as much as possible, the story is told by Chaplin and his collaborators, from archive interviews and memoirs.
I wanted to do proper justice to a book that is so lavish and thorough and … majestic in scope. So I decided that the best way to review The Charlie Chaplin Archives was not with words, but with pictures.
This book is the result of a powerful encounter that poet Claire Crowther had with a sublime silent film: The Passion of Joan of Arc directed by Carl Th Dreyer. The sadly prosaic truth of the matter is that Crowther’s first glimpse of Falconetti’s tear-streaked face was on YouTube, the result of typing “passion” into the search box, hoping to find an image to use in a poem. After seeing Joan, and being moved by it, Crowther set off on another search, however.
That YouTube moment sent Crowther on a silent spree, watching everything that she could find from cinema’s early years: from The ‘?’ Motorist to The Seashell and the Clergyman. Crowther was fascinated by the artistry of the films, by the mystery surrounding their production, and by the “gagged look” of the films’ stars.
Though it was built by the grandest American film corporation, Famous Players-Lasky, no contemporary report of the film studio on the Regent’s Canal ever confused Shoreditch with Southern California. All were in agreement over its incongruous location, noting the contrast of imported glamour and native poverty – unscrubbed children, the smell of fried fish. There was less agreement, however, on what to call it, at least in the 1920s: sometimes “the Lasky studios”, sometimes “Islington” (the local telephone exchange was Clerkenwell; Hoxton is also arguable), often “Poole Street”. “Gainsborough” seems to have stuck only later, probably because of the famous Gainsborough melodramas, made towards the end of the studio’s life in the 1940s. Uncertain nomenclature notwithstanding, Gary Chapman is right to describe his subject as “a microcosm of the evolution of the British film industry during the silent era”.
FP-L established itself in what had been a power station soon after the Great War, apparently in order to exploit European locations and West End playwrights, and sent over some of its most talented staff; but the first films to emerge from N1 were poorly received, and by the time the reviews began to improve the plug had been pulled. Most of the Americans departed by the middle of 1922. They left behind the best-equipped studio in Britain – early difficulties with the London fog having been overcome – but its survival as a rental facility was not guaranteed. The practices of “blind” and “block” booking – mastered by Famous Players-Lasky itself – made it very difficult for British filmmakers to get a look-in, even in British cinemas, and production was in the middle of a five-year slump. As Chapman shows, the producers who took on the Islington studio in 1922–3 were the bravest of a new breed.
If a book absolutely, positively, had to be judged by its cover, then Birds of Paradise: Costume as Cinematic Spectacle would be just fine. This anthology of academic writing comes encased in black, and the cover features a shimmering Serpentine Dancer, her skirts twirling over her head and with her arms outstretched. We know this is a frame enlargement because the rainbow inks daubed on to the frame transform her rippling dress into the wings of a butterfly, or an exotic bird. She is framed by the darkness of the blank stage around her: a woman in a white dress, made into a spectacle by the twin arts of fashion and film. The cover is utterly appropriate and ravishingly gorgeous.
Before you even reach the title page, there are more dancers, swishing their skirts and pointing their toes, reproduced in silvered, coloured inks on matt-black paper. This is an academic book masquerading as a coffee-table tome. You could flick through it for hours (and I did) marvelling at these silver and full-colour illustrations, weighing the heavy paper in your fingers.
But at some point, one must stop flirting and dance with the one that brung you. That is to say, read the darned book. The good news is that that divine creation has been brought to us by the people behind the Fashion in Film Festival and as such it is comprises an intelligent and slightly idiosyncratic approach to its subject. This is not a simple skate through film-costume history. The several contributors are mostly academics and curators, in the fields of performance, design, fashion, literature and film, and their essays are arranged in three groups, relating to different eras.
I watched my first silent films, not on my grandpa’s knee, nor at one of these grand screenings with live music that they have nowadays, but in a sixth-form college classroom while being guided through my film studies A-level. It’s not a very romantic story, but I loved what I saw, and while studying for my exams, and subsequently at university, I sought out, saw, and enjoyed many more silents – going from a teenage film fan to an early cinema buff-in-waiting. The film studies syllabus (WJEC, a few years ago now) that I took was great – introducing us to relatively obscure arty silents as well as a healthy appreciation of Hollywood industry mechanics and even a smattering of theory. It stood me in good stead for my English lit & lang degree and a master’s in film history. Plus, I doubt the 18-year-old me would ever have got to see Un Chien Andalou without it. If you want someone to take the blame for Silent London, you can point your finger squarely at a tertiary college in Ealing W5. (I chose the college, incidentally, primarily because it was so close to the famous film studios.)
The point is, I think that sixth form is a great time to introduce people to early and silent film. Teenagers who seek out noisy bands and edgy art want off-beat films to watch too. Silents fit the bill perfectly. There’s something off-kilter about silent movies when you first meet them, and something unexpected about a supposedly modern subject area taking you so far back into the past.
Cheering then, to see Keith Withall’s Studying Early and Silent Cinema land on my desk. It’s an expansion of a 2007 volume and clearly informed by two things: his years spent teaching film studies at FE and HE level, and a passion for attending the film festivals at Pordenone and Bologna. This is a useful work for anyone interested in silent cinema to use as a reference but a great introduction to the subject for students. It’s a read-this-now-watch-that thing, and I’m all for it. Not only that, but Withall blogs too, posting thoughtful, erudite essays at cinetext.wordpress.com
Withall’s expanded book is an enjoyable and wide-ranging introduction to the key concepts and landmarks in the early and silent film period. This guide tackles a breathtakingly vast amount of material in the clearest of terms, and always with one eye on the here-and-now. There are references not just to modern films and attitudes, but also practical consideration of the availability of viewing material. Case studies examine classic films in detail, while wider sweeps take in potted histories of alternative and smaller national cinemas. Throughout, Withall encourages students towards wider exploration of the subject area – and most importantly, towards further viewing.
Studying Early and Silent Cinema by Keith Withall will be on sale in May 2014, priced £16.99 in paperback (ISBN: 978-1-906733-69-8) and £50 in hardback (ISBN: 978-1-906733-70-4), published by Auteur
Jonathan Croall would like to introduce you to his father, his father’s friends and their neglected, but fascinating, glory days. Readers of this blog will recognise Croall’s father as John Stuart, the dashing star of many a British silent movie, including The Pleasure Garden, Roses of Picardy and Hindle Wakes, plus many more talkies besides. Stuart worked right until the late 70s. His last big-screen role was as a Kryptonian elder in 1978’s Superman.
This lovingly written and hugely informative book, Forgotten Stars: My Father and the British Silent Film World, is concerned with Stuart’s heyday, however, and his cohorts in Britain’s silent movie industry. As Croall tells his father’s story, he loops in the tales of the actors, writers, producers and directors he worked with: there’s Maurice Elvey and Alfred Hitchcock; Lillian Hall-Davis and Estelle Brody; the Film Society and the coming of sound. It’s a distinctive methodology – a chapter on a wider topic will suddenly focus on anecdotes from Stuart’s career alone, and then usher in two more dramatis personae. Under the chapter heading Fans and Fan Clubs, say, one reads several paragraphs on the publicity industry surrounding silent movie stars. Beneath the subheading A Star Under Siege we encounter a story about Stuart being mobbed by fans at the Film Artists’ Fair, which leads to a discussion of his fans, his fan club, his gruelling schedule of personal appearances and the speeches he made. (These sections that dwell solely on Stuart’s career are flagged with his smiling portrait.) This is then followed by two profiles of British silent cinema’s two biggest stars: Betty Balfour and Ivor Novello.
A fortnight ago, I reviewed Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films here on Silent London and I was very taken with it. It may have a simple format, but the choice of films is often surprising, so it’s as much a pleasure to read in one sitting as it is useful as a reference work. For those of you who want to buy a copy, perhaps to start ticking off films as you watch them, as some people have suggested to me on Twitter, the publishers are offering a discount to readers of this blog.
This illuminating guide provides a selection of one hundred key films of the silent period (1895-1930), featuring films from a variety of countries, genres and directors. You can order a copy of BFI Publishing’s 100 Silent Films by Bryony Dixon (RRP £12.99) for £8.50 on the Palgrave website here. Just quote the discount code WSILENT11.
Have you ever read a movie list you agreed with 100%? Of course not. And that’s the fun of them. A cinema buff’s spluttering outrage over the omission of a favourite title, just like his or her tutting dismay over the running order, fools no one. We love other people’s lists, because they give us the opportunity to write our own. And no doubt our first move is to increase the number of silent films in the countdown.
Well I’m happy to say that Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films offers a very different kind of pleasure. For one, all these films are silent, and its alphabetical presentation means that we are not faced with the problem of comparing, and placing in order, such disparate films as The Big Swallow (1901), Napoleon (1927) and The Battle of the Somme (1916). (You’re thinking about it now, though, aren’t you?)
Dixon, the curator of silent film at the British Film Institute and co-founder of the British Silent Film Festival, has written an engaging guide to the world of silent cinema – ostensibly for novices, but with plenty to please those longer in the tooth. 100 Silent Films is part of a series of Screen Guides that includes 100 Westerns, 100 Shakespeare Films, and so on – but as the author points out, silent cinema is not as easily digestible a topic. “Silent cinema is not a genre; it’s the first thirty-five years of film history … a complex negotiation between art and commerce, and a union of creativity and technology.” So Dixon makes no bones about the fact her project is a vast one, and many of her chosen films have very little in common. Refreshingly, she doesn’t try to fit the awkward square pegs into round holes, but presents each film on its own terms. She’s wary of misplacing “isms” (expressionism, surrealism, feminism) and hesitates to put the titles into anachronistic categories such as film noir.